Job Characteristics Key to Motivating Federal Employees

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Having skilled, engaged federal employees is more important than ever, especially in light of austere fiscal conditions, budget constraints, and impending skill shortages. A new report from the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) examines motivation levels in the federal workforce and discusses steps that federal agencies can take to enhance employee engagement and performance.  

Federal Employee Engagement: The Motivating Potential of Job Characteristics and Rewards, released January 2013, finds that while it appears that majority (70.5 percent) of federal employees are generally motivated, 13.1 percent of respondents report that they are not in their work—clear evidence that there is room for improvement.  

Why the lack of motivation? According to the report, motivation can be linked to the following job characteristics:  

  • skill variety: job allows workers to perform a variety of tasks that require a wide range of knowledge, skills, and abilities
  • task identity: job allows workers to complete a single piece of work (rather than bits and pieces) from beginning to end
  • task significance: job has a significant positive impact on others, either within the organization or the public in general
  • autonomy: job gives workers the freedom to make decisions regarding how I accomplish my work
  • feedback: workers receive information about my job performance and the effectiveness of my efforts, either directly from the work itself or from others. 

The MSPB survey computed a “motivation potential level” to gauge how each respondent viewed the characteristics of his or her job. The data found that while 52 percent of respondents reported a mid-level motivation potential, only 21 percent had a high-level motivation potential. This finding suggests that although federal employees feel motivated in their work at a general level, job characteristics are an area where potential improvements can be made to increase motivation.  
Federal Employee Engagement also uncovered a clear relationship between survey respondents’ motivation potential levels, their characteristics, and their actual job performance.  Although a substantial majority of federal employees agreed that their jobs require varied skills, have a significant positive impact, and provide autonomy, and feedback, far fewer employees agreed with the “task identity” characteristic.  


According to the report, “It appears that many federal employees perceive their jobs as being one part of a larger job rather than as entailing a complete set of tasks that comprise a single start-to-finish function. The scope of the Government’s activities and program considerations such as efficiency, specialization, and accountability may dictate a formal division of labor that prevents employees from working on every aspect of a project or seeing a project to completion. In other words, there may be limits to task identity in some federal jobs that are necessary for agency mission accomplishment.” 

What can agencies do to improve job characteristics?  

There are several approaches that agencies can take to modify job characteristics to support employee motivation and engagement.  

  • Job enlargement to expand employees’ responsibilities within their current job to increase their knowledge and skill sets. 
  • Job rotation to assign an employee tasks typically performed by others to broaden knowledge and skills. Typically, this involves cross-training in the duties of different jobs. 
  • Job enrichment to provide an employee with more independence, responsibility, and accountability in performing assigned tasks. 

Federal Employee Engagement focuses on helping federal agencies, federal managers and supervisors, and other stakeholders better understand how job characteristics can support employee motivation and encourage engagement and performance. To learn more, access the full report from

About the Author
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.
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